Doan teams with psychology faculty to expand research on how drawing can ease anxiety

For the past six years, Bill Doan’s research and creative work has focused on how drawing can be a tool for managing mental health. He is now involved in a joint-funded project that is taking that work to a new level by measuring individuals’ physiological responses while drawing.

Doan, professor of theatre and director of the Arts & Design Research Incubator (ADRI), is collaborating on the project with principal investigator Sarah Myruski, assistant research professor of psychology and associate director of the Emotion Development Lab, and lab director Kristin Buss, professor of psychology and human development and family studies. They recently received a Joint Projects Grant in the Arts, Humanities, and Social and Behavioral Sciences, co-sponsored by Penn State’s Social Science Research Institute, College of Arts and Architecture, and College of the Liberal Arts.

Titled “Integrating Drawing and Mindfulness to Reduce Anxiety in Adolescents: A Randomized Pilot Study,” the project, which originally studied college students, launched in 2021 with funding from the ADRI.

“We found that in young adults, this [drawing and mindfulness] activity helped reduce anxiety symptoms in the moment and reduced cardiac arousal, enhancing their physiological relaxation in the moment,” said Myruski. “Doing this activity reduced their anxiety up to one week later.”

Doan said he reached out to Myruski and Buss, head of the Department of Psychology, because his previous work had shown how drawing can lessen anxiety, and he wanted to incorporate a science component in that research.

“I wanted to see if we could bring the science to this, so it would have the credibility it needs for any widespread adoption,” said Doan, who has produced 500 drawings and two original performance pieces as part of “My Anxiety Project.” “My argument has long been that a number 2 pencil and a piece of paper addresses the accessibility problem [related to managing anxiety].”

According to Doan, in the College of Arts and Architecture, researchers are always making the argument that there are benefits to creative practice and art making. “But in very few cases do we bring the science along with it to make our point. It’s really exciting for me, after all these years, to potentially be on to a way to really make that argument in a more evidence-based way, to remind people that the distance between art and science is not that great,” said Doan.

We frequently have the same goals – we just want to make people’s lives better. I’m grateful to have made this connection.”
-Bill Doan

For Myruski, her motivation for this research is the “staggering prevalence” of anxiety, especially in youth. “I’m also motivated by the fact that the majority of young people who struggle with anxiety have trouble finding ways to address the anxiety in a healthy way,” said Myruski, who plans to apply for a National Institutes of Health grant following this phase of the study.

The researchers are currently recruiting adolescents ages 13-17 for the study, which consists of answering questions about their emotions and engaging in a drawing activity while their heart rate activity is recorded.Parents may sign up their interested teens at